Patrick Marley and Molly Beck, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
MADISON - Assembly Speaker Robin Vos blamed the culture of immigrant populations for a coronavirus outbreak in Racine County, according to a secret recording of his meeting last month with Gov. Tony Evers.
“I know the reason at least in my region is because of a large immigrant population where it’s just a difference in culture where people are living much closer and working much closer,” the Rochester Republican said of an outbreak in Racine County.
Vos didn't elaborate on his views during the May 14 meeting.
Darryl Morin, president of Forward Latino, said Thursday that Hispanics in Racine County are contracting coronavirus at higher rates than others because many of them are essential workers and not because of their "culture."
He said Vos should apologize and do more to make sure businesses provide safe working environments.
"I understood it to be a rather dismissive remark that immigrants and immigrant lives aren’t as much a concern for the speaker," Morin said.
"Here we have individuals going to work so they can provide for their families. Many of our government officials aren’t sticking up and making sure that these employers are being held accountable to provide safe working conditions."
In an interview Thursday, Vos said he was referring to an outbreak affecting the Latino community that had just occurred in Burlington.
"There’s no need to apologize," Vos said. "This is once again people trying to look and make something out of a conversation that was 'how do we deal with the coronavirus?'"
Vos made the comment about the outbreak as he and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald of Juneau talked to the Democratic governor about how the state should respond to the coronavirus crisis after the Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down the Evers administration's stay-at-home order.
The call was secretly recorded by Evers' staff and a copy of it was released this week to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel under the state's open records law. Vos and Fitzgerald laced into Evers for the recording, saying he had made it impossible to trust him. Evers was not aware of the recording at the time, according to his spokeswoman.
Vos said the public should focus on the Evers administration breaking norms by recording the call and not Vos' comment about immigrant culture.
"I’m not going to get into this when the story is actually Gov. Evers choosing to secretly record the Legislature and doing it in a way that’s never been done before," Vos said.
Racine County has seen some of the highest levels of coronavirus cases in Wisconsin. There are 69 active investigations into COVID-19 there, including 32 at workplaces, 14 at long-term care facilities and nine at group housing sites, according to the state Department of Health Services.
Latinos are overrepresented among coronavirus victims in Racine County. They make up 13% of the overall population but account for 23% of the confirmed and probable cases in the County, according to the county's health department.
Cases in the county spiked at the end of May and have been falling since then. When Vos made his comment, cases were on the upswing.
There are large gaps in the information about the outbreak in Racine County, however. The Wisconsin Department of Health Services has failed to provide data on workplace outbreaks including names of companies and numbers of workers infected and those who have died.
Morin said Vos' comment was all the more problematic because he made it soon after state Supreme Court Chief Justice Patience Roggensack drew criticism for saying during oral arguments that the coronavirus had spiked in Brown County because of meatpackers and not "regular folks."
"I think it's very concerning and irresponsible following the comments made by Wisconsin Chief Justice Patience Roggensack here just a few weeks ago that dismissed immigrants as not regular people," Morin said
"You think he would have learned his lesson."
Daphne Chen, Maria Perez and Andrew Mollica of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.
Contact Patrick Marley at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @patrickdmarley.